More than 40 years ago, Gene Wilder starred in Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein (1974), which merrily mocked classic horror movies. It became a huge smash and earned an Academy Award nomination for the screenplay by Wilder and Brooks. It was also a reminder that actors sometimes have unexpected literary talents.
Wilder quickly turned to directing as well, and while he only returned to horror once more with Haunted Honeymoon, he set an example for actors to come; namely, that their take on familiar stereotypes could result in surprisingly good horror-comedies and frightening thrillers alike. In recent years, we've seen a slew of scary movies written by actors.
Simon Pegg, Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Writing a great script is more than simply conjuring up excellent dialogue for the characters to speak. It also requires a basic understanding of human nature, as well as a visual sense of how best to communicate the meaning of every scene.
In this sequence, hungover Shaun (Simon Pegg) walks a short distance from his home to a neighborhood shop and then back again, all without ever noticing all the warning signs that a zombie apocalypse has broken out. There's barely any dialogue, but note how many times the oblivious Shaun manages to miss seeing repeated evidence of zombies.
It's all in character for Shaun, who has been sleepwalking through life, a tendency that he will have to overcome if he's to survive the comic horrors that are about to rain down upon him. Pegg cowrite the original screenplay with director Edgar Wright. The two had already teamed up on the British TV series Spaced, a hilarious show with liberal doses of pop-culture commentary. Pegg has continued to write for the screen; his next effort, Star Trek Beyond, hit theaters on July 22 to more great success and praise for his work as a writer.
Leigh Whannell, Saw (2004)
Two men wake up, chained, in a darkened and filthy bathroom, which is soon also revealed to be a resting place for a very bloody body. It's a startling (and NSFW) opening to a movie that quickly became a sensation.
Saw launched the careers of James Wan and Leigh Whannell, who met at school in Australia in 1996. Whannell enjoyed initial success as a TV-show host and scored some small acting roles. Then he and Wan took the leap to finance their own short film version of Saw. Whannell's performance in the movie was fine, but it was his writing that caught the eye (and ear) of Hollywood. He and Wan had come up with a clever premise and then Whannell delivered a script filled with dialogue that sounded authentic for characters in desperate situations.
That's become a hallmark of Whannell's screenplays, which are especially welcome in a world of horror movies dragged down by poor writing. His characters are defined by their actions and distinguished by their dialogue, which is what makes them memorable, whether they are a family under attack by supernatural forces (Insidious) or teachers beset by suddenly vicious children (Cooties).
Wentworth Miller, Stoker (2013)
Currently plying his trade as an actor on TV's Legends of Tomorrow, Wentworth Miller revealed a hidden facet of his talents when he wrote the original screenplay for Stoker. He had established himself as a leading man in the successful series Prison Break, but when that concluded in 2009, he decided to try his hand at writing.
His first script, initially attributed to a pseudonym, generated considerable interest and since then Miller has continued to write while staying busy as an actor. His next produced screenplay, The Disappointments Room, is another genre exercise, following a mother and her young son who must deal with horrors they accidently unleash after moving to a new home. It came out last month; though it did not stir much popular attention, it certainly did not disappoint horror fans.
As an actor, Miller has embodied strong personalities. As a writer, Miller has demonstrated an uncanny ability to toy with conventions in unexpected ways.
Joel Edgerton, The Gift (2015)
Marketed as a thriller, The Gift is more accurately described as an atmospheric horror movie. Set in the modern day, it revolves around a happily married couple (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall) who are visited by the husband's former schoolmate (Edgerton). The more that their deepest, darkest secrets are explored, the chillier and more unsettling the movie becomes. In other words, don't expect conventional twists and turns.
Making his feature directorial debut, Edgerton displayed the experience he gained from making short films with his brother Nash Edgerton, beginning about 20 years ago. So far, Joel Edgerton has only written features in which he also appears as an actor (Felony, The Gift, Jane Got a Gun), yet he's resisted creating characters for himself that are inherently heroic. Instead, he draws portraits that are filled with interesting people whose motivations are not always readily apparent.
Billy Bob Thornton, The Gift (2001)
Beginning his entertainment career as a musician, Thornton shifted gears when he moved to Los Angeles with his longtime friend Tom Epperson in 1981. They worked on scripts together and about five years later Thornton began landing small acting roles. Thornton and Epperson eventually sold a script that was produced, the crime drama One False Move (1991), which won critical acclaim and earned Thornton good notices for his performance.
It wasn't until Sling Blade, however, that Thornton broke out big. As a fledgling writer and actor, he created the lead character for a one-person stage production. He revisited the character in a short film, which served as a launching pad for the feature version. It proved to be a modest box office hit and Thornton won an Academy Award for his script.
Thornton soon became a leading man in Hollywood and has remained busy as an actor ever since. Still, the few films that Thornton has scripted demonstrate a keen understanding of human nature and the often troubled dynamics of American families. He cowrote supernatural drama The Gift with Epperson, reportedly drawing upon the experiences of his mother, a psychic. Sam Raimi directed and the movie remains a distinctive and haunting experience.
Clark Gregg, What Lies Beneath (2000)
Years before he became Agent Coulson in Iron Man and other Marvel properties, Clark Gregg struggled to find work as an actor in Hollywood. He wrote an original screenplay that brought him to the attention of studio executives. In this video, Gregg explains what happened next.
As directed by Robert Zemeckis, the subtle horror thriller became a big hit. Gregg began finding steady work as an actor, though he's occasionally returned to writing and directing (Choke, Trust Me). His first produced screenplay, however, holds up well.